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The Indianapolis Cultural Trail: The Next-Gen in U.S. Protected Bike Lanes

In May, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a bike & pedestrian path connecting some of Indy's most popular cultural institutions, had its long-awaited public coming out with a ribbon cutting and celebration. It's one of the biggest bicycling infrastructure achievements in North America, and yet it's still practically a secret.

As you'll see, the Cultural Trail runs eight fantastic miles through the heart of downtown and features beautiful stone work, green landscaping and even bioswales to absorb stormwater runoff. There is great signage and trail design with an eye for maximum safety. In many places, parking and/or a car travel lane was converted to trail space. But most importantly, the trail features ample room for both cyclists and pedestrians (most of the time in separate environments) to get around downtown, whether they're commuting, exercising, running errands, or just going for an afternoon jaunt. It's fun and very safe and people of all ages using it.

Across the U.S. cities such as NYC, Chicago, and Washington are doing tremendous work installing miles of protected bike lanes with inexpensive materials. Although the Cultural Trail cost quite a bit, it's nice to know that to find extensive downtown bike infrastructure made with beautiful, permanent materials, we don't have to look to Europe. We can go check out Indianapolis.

Note: Please don't miss our related Streetfilm on Indy's bike-friendly GOP Mayor Greg Ballard and a 2 minute short looking more in-depth at the bioswales and storm water management system along the Cultural Trail.

Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • Todd Edelman

    Lots of thought and care went into this. That is clear. I don't doubt the good intentions of everyone who spoke with you.

    It seems clear, however, that the two-way sections of the path are too narrow: It seems that in at least 1/3 of the shots someone is going the wrong way on a bike if part of a pair. This is a foundational problem -- the attention to signage, greenery, paving (but not good for skating?), and so on is great but there is no simple way to correct this. The path just opened and there already seems to be capacity issues.

    Also it is very dangerous to depend on the private sector for the majority of funding for things like this. It is natural that they want to support infra. like this for (in part) their own economic well-being, but what about communities that cannot e.g. match something like Tiger? It is hard to tell how the path relates to any gentrification happening so perhaps the private funding in this case is relatively benign, but on the other hand the real high(est) profile privately-funded sustainable transport thing, bike share in NYC, is greenwash for a major financial backer of mountaintop removal for coal and tar sands extraction.

    The bike paths will get wider, as will the gap between rich and poor.

  • Mary Beth Kelly

    Makes me want to visit Indianapolis just to ride and gather inspiration. Advocates, elected officials, and philanthropists enriched urban living while stimulating their local economy and contributing to a greater sense of community. You captured it so well as usual, Clarence, along with the skills of a great team.

  • Publicgood

    The private sector can prove that something like this is a good ides, but real change that reaches everyone requires public funds.

    I hope it's not a trend for these kind of improvements only to reach high profile places in cities.

  • Jono Kenyon

    I am increasingly impressed with N American politicians and planners who are not just talking of encouraging cycling but actually doing it. Clever ideas used throughout this scheme, and there seems to be an understanding of the need to build a network, with no gaps. As one commentator has mentioned, there may be capacity issues, but start and keep building from there. Inspiring video!

  • http://karenlynnallen.blogspot.com/ Karen Lynn Allen

    Congratulations to Indianapolis. Though the trail may not be perfect, though we may wish our local, state and federal governments were smart enough to invest in this kind of infrastructure rather than all the worthless earmarks, pork, spying and wars our tax money is spent on, this city ped/bike path will do far more for Indianapolis than either its planners or private funders imagine by making Indianapolis more able to weather adversity. For any community, getting such a project funded, by hook or by crook, before the music stops is a very smart thing to do.

    How will this trail help Indianapolis in ways less obvious than shown on the video? 1) Getting people comfortable riding bikes as a mode of transportation means that oil shortages or extreme oil price volatility will not render its citizens immobile or helpless and such shortages/volatility will not crash its economy. 2) The new businesses and housing that are springing up around it are an obvious economic benefit, but going further, the new businesses and housing will foster a dense urban core, which in turn will lower the energy consumption per person of their city, rendering Indianapolis more economically competitive than cities that guzzle three or four times the BTUs per dollar of GDP created. 3) Creating a city where people can comfortably and happily live car-free means its citizens will be able to spend a larger portion of their income in their local economy rather than their dollars flying to other countries and states that manufacture cars and/or produce/refine oil. This in turn stimulates the local economy, provides more local jobs, creates a better local tax base, etc. 4) Getting people out of their cars and interacting face to face will build community, trust and social connections, all essential to problem solving and effective adaptation to changing conditions. 5) Last but not least, a bikable, walkable, social, vibrant city is going to be attractive to Millenials. For sheer demographic reasons, any city that doesn't manage to make itself attractive Millenials is literally not going to have a future.

    If Indianapolis can continue to create density, lower its energy consumption and decrease urban use of private cars, eventually the cultural trail may en up the domain of kids and seniors on bikes while speedier riders take the street. This is not a terrible thing.

  • Daphna

    That is a great film! Go Indianapolis! It cost $63 Million for 8 miles of a protected, separated bike/ped path through the downtown area. They built it with pavers and plantings. They got a $20 million grant, a $15 million donation from one person, and raised the rest from other philanthropists. Bike/ped infrastructure, even more elaborate infrastructure like this, is not expensive compared to motor vehicle infrastructure. I like this model of using private money for greenways. If there are people willing to donate, and if it can cut through a lot of bureaucracy and other delays that would arise if it were taxpayer money, then why not?!?

    It is also amazing how development sprang up in areas around this protected bike/ped path - areas that previously were abandoned or underused. This shows how desirable it is to be on a transportation network.

    I do agree with Todd Edelman's comment that the path is too narrow. It reminds me exactly of what the Economic Development Corporation built on the Queens side of the Queensboro Bridge. They were creating a whole new path, not trying to retrofit existing infrastructure, and they had plenty of space but instead EDC made the two-way bike path too narrow. It just barely handles current bike volumes and will be too small as soon as bike volumes increase. This path is Indianapolis is too narrow, but it is a good start for them anyway. The design guidelines for bike infrastructure need to change - most bike lanes are too narrow.

  • Jake Wegmann

    Indeed. Time for us to step up our game here in the San Francisco Bay Area -- less talk, and more action.

  • Jake Wegmann

    I hear what you're saying.

    But step #1 is to get something built so that people can kick the tires, so to speak. Get something physical built, and all of a sudden there is something tangible for people to be excited about rather than something abstract for them to be terrified of. With public processes, the built-in bias of the system is to do nothing, to build nothing, or at least to build nothing inspiring or different or game-changing.

    Now the whole conversation in Indy regarding bike infrastructure should starting changing. And eventually that should include the use of public funds.

  • Jake Wegmann

    Making real things happen in the real world requires getting your hands dirty, and entering the grubby world of politics, compromise, and building alliances with people or entities you don't fully, or even mostly, agree with. But if you're doing it right, then you come further ahead in the bargain than you were to be begin with.

    Thus it ever was, and thus it ever will be.

  • Todd Edelman

    What is up with people and their patronizing and very, very general comments like this? In fact, totally obvious and thus absolutely meaningless comments...

  • Todd Edelman

    You are right about step #1, Jake, a pilot or pioneer project.

    But you are over-generalizing about the rest. The biggest focus of the Streetfilms (and Streetsblog, to an extent) has been on city hall-originated and financially-supported programs. Only very recently - and probably temporarily - has corporate-funded Citi Bike taken a prominent position.

    Some mayors and city leaders might look at the Indianapolis project as an impetus to do things with city money, and others will not -- it lets them off the hook. The boards of public companies respond to shareholders but private companies have little accountability in projects like this which are not part of their core business.

    By the way in Europe many pilots begin with EU-funding, and then either function without subsidy or get local funding. There is some of this in U.S., but not enough.

  • Jake Wegmann

    I'm sorry you took offense. Being patronizing wasn't my intent. But your immediate fusillade of harsh criticism in response to an upbeat story rubbed me the wrong way.

    I don't think what I said is meaningless -- I think it shows that you and I have different reactions to this news, which probably ties into some larger disagreement that we have about how to make change in the world.

    Personally, I think that tearing down things that are 90% great is a waste of time. I think that there are so many things out there that are 100% awful that would be much more productive targets for your critiques.

    Clearly, you disagree, and it's important to you to be honest and to call out flaws where you see them. I get that. I don't think it's the best approach, but I get that.

    Just to put my cards on the table: I spent 2.5 years of my life working on a project that everyone on the progressive half of the spectrum (green, affordable, transit-adjacent, etc, etc housing) should have loved, because it represented the implementation of what such people repeatedly say they want. But when the chips were down, and the project was under attack, many, many people wouldn't rise to its defense because some aspect of it wasn't 100.0% to their liking.

    Now, in the interest of not wasting anymore time fighting with someone that I probably agree with on a lot of things ... that's all for me.

  • KS

    It would have been nice if they had made the cross walk buttons also on the bike lane or in the middle for both. To cross you have to cross over each time to press the button.

  • Todd Edelman

    I am not fighting, but I think you were "mansplaining" though I don't think it was intentional, and so I addressed you in the third person.

    Anyway, I did praise this project but pointed out both a hard-to-fix technical flaw and a problematic formal one.

    To go on about my "wide paths" metaphor a bit: I have not seen any proof of bike/ped infra. causing gentrification on their own, and I will accept that some former areas along the Cultural Trail were blighted or under-utilized.

    Still, many "better streets" actors take a decidedly narrow views on these things: To reference NYC again - more explicitly this time - we have a mayor who bought a third term who has both a good lieutenant (Sadik-Khan) and a bad one (Kelly), yet Bloomberg praises them both. The first works to make the streets better and the other is a racist thug - a prime example being his support of "Stop & Frisk" - who also enables a very lame attitude towards traffic enforcement that counteracts the good work of the other one. Bloomberg gets praise from better streets actors for Sadik-Khan but does very rarely get criticized for NYPD's traffic issues and really never for Stop & Frisk from the same people. Why is this? What are people scared of?

    Everything happening between the facades on our streets is both fair game and equal.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Todd, you do tend to tear down just about everything. I know it comes from a well meaning heart, but after a while it becomes a broken record. People just start to tune you out and people will not take anything you say seriously anymore. Just letting you know.

  • Jh

    You don't have to actuate the ped/bike signal. They are automatic.

  • Todd Edelman

    Who is tuning me out? My role is not to cheerlead - that is yours. It is great that you do that, and I think most understand that it is not journalism. In the absence of objectivity or analysis I have things to say. That's it.

    That said, I am more balanced now than I have been before -- I make sure I honestly praise and criticize.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Oh my God. That is amazing. All of a sudden I want to visit Indianapolis. To go biking! Who'd a thunk it!

  • jwb

    Wow! Never been to Indianapolis but now I want to visit.

    By the way do you have to seek out people on Segways or do they just happen to wander into Streetfilms now and again on their own initiative?

  • Aidan

    Its 10' wide... 1' narrower than a lane for cars trucks. When you take 11' away you cannot magically create 15'. Capacity is fine what you are seeing in the videos is a bit of cherry picking of the high volume times.

  • Clarence

    There are actually a few people who use segways in Indy for various reasons. I actually spoke to one but he (and a few others) didn't make the cut because I was we'll over 11 minutes on my first draft. I still thought this might be too long at 8 but everyone is telling me the minutes breeze by, which is what I was trying to do.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    The majority of the funding was actually from federal government sources, notably a TIGER grant and some TE money. One major philanthropist made a reasonably large gift. He's an apartment developer but to the best of my knowledge has done nothing downtown. Only about $12 million came from other donations, mostly traditional type of givers.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    I'd like to note a couple other aspects of the trail that I didn't see highlighted.

    1. Stoplights are set to have red arrows for turning traffic to hold up turning cars long enough to let pedestrians and bicycles cross the crosswalk during light cycles. Thus there is neither cross-traffic nor turning traffic to contend with at many intersections.

    2. There's a maintenance endowment that will pay for trail management and upkeep in perpetuity (in theory at least - I'd expect some sort of a major refresh capital investment at some point, but this should really help). And unlike with many such proposed endowments, this one is actually funded already.

  • Todd Edelman

    1. Sounds good for pedestrians, but it is designed so that cyclists have to cross with pedestrians? This is behind what is implemented on Dearborn in Chicago and what will be implemented soon on 2nd St. in San Francisco.

    2. This is very good -- a oft-neglected issue.

  • Todd Edelman

    Thanks, Aaron! Perhaps I misunderstood what was in the video. I am curious if there is research about the possibility or willingness for private matches in cities nationwide.

  • http://www.phoenixspokespeople.org/ PhoenixSpokesPeople

    This is such an inspiration for other cities!

  • Sir Bikesalot

    I'm sorry but this is one of the worst designed bike trails I've ever seen! This was designed by a landscape architect that knows very little about the standards of bicycle facility design.

    What's the design speed? 5mph? Look at all the peds in the bike trail. Those "high viz" crosswalks look really pretty but are near invisible at night, particularly in the rain and they wear out REALLY quickly. You would never see a crosswalk like this in Europe because their designers have known what works for 30 years now (zebra stipes)!

    This is a toy, NOT a transportation tool!

  • Aaron M. Renn

    Cyclists and pedestrians cross at the same time, but I've not experienced any problems. Keep in mind that on much of the trail the pedestrian and bicycle trails are completely separate.
    I've been gone from Chicago for a year (lived there a long time), but the bicycle experience in the Loop is not good. I am going to post a reply to someone else's comment above that gets into this.

  • Aaron M. Renn

    Well, Sir Bikesalot, I think you miss part of the equation. This is a downtown area with lots of traffic. One of the design goals was in fact to create a facility in which the average bicyclists - including children - felt safe biking downtown. It was not intended to be a high speed cycle-superhighway or something to enable long distance commuting. (There actually are regular bike lanes that can facilitate this).

    Additionally, downtown has many visitors (including suburbanites) who have fears about wandering into the 'hood or some such. This fear is not uncommon in the US, sadly. Another design goals was to great something that had such a unique appearance such that 1) you know you are always safe if you are on the Trail and 2) you can't get lost if you are on the Trail.

    Oh, and this was never intended purely to be a bike lane facility.

    So yes, landscape architecture did play a role in this. But that's because there were many design goals that went well beyond bicycling.

    By the way, I've yet to see a downtown area in the US where families felt comfortable biking, and the Indy Cultural Trail has really made major changes here. Children biking downtown is huge.

    I don't like the thermoplastic myself, however. I do feel they pushed the "unique" aspect a bit too far and so had to have bespoke designs for everything. Fortunately there's an endowment to pay for maintenance.

  • Sir Bikesalot

    I repeat. This is a toy and not a transportation facility.

    This is a pedestrian promenade disguised as a bicyclie facility. I think they would have been much better building a nice pedestrian ammenity and forgone any bicycle stuff. Cycletracks are fine, as long as they remain below the sidewalk and handle bicyclists like vehicles at intersections.

    Oh, and if transportation cyclists need a bikelane on any of these roads to safely travel these roads at speeds greater than 10mph, I guess they'll be SOL because this toy bike facility is already taking up so much of the ROW.

    I'm glad you see my concern that the crosswalks are completely non-compliant with any accepted design standards and leave users vulnerable. Now if someone gets hit on these noncompliant crosswalks, could they sue the endowment??

  • Aidan

    what is "non-compliant"?

  • Todd Edelman

    OK, Aaron, but for how many years have you been cycling in the city? Can we please take the "I" out of cycling experience critique?

    I am eager to hear more about the Loop -- hope I was clear that it was about intention, and not results.

  • Richard B Miller Jr

    Wow! Indy I am very impressed.
    I agree with the naysayers as well that this not primarily a "transportation tool". Even if it were I think going forward we are going to have more problems with careless uneducated cyclists than with the design flaws of the Cultural Trail. On the bicycle trail near my home I often see little children on bikes drifting into the oncoming lane (around blind curves no less), oblivious adults aimlessly pacing in circles talking on their cellphones blocking the bicycle lane (when they could just take 2 steps and talk at the side of the trail), and cyclists actually riding the trail while talking on their phones. However, even with all this going on I'd rather watch out for careless pedestrians and cyclists than careless auto drivers. Plus, I've adopted a more "slow bike" mentality over the years so dodging the careless folks on the bike trail doesn't bother me too much anymore.
    I think this trail is a HUGE step in the right direction. I live in Indiana and am already planning a trip down to Indy to ride the Cultural Trail for a couple of days within a month. I had heard they were building trails in Indy but I just figured it was a bunch of striped lanes as usual. I had no idea it was protected bike lanes all around the heart of the city!!! It looks great for walkers as well!
    Thanks for getting this film up Streetsblog. This should be featured on every nightly news cast in America. Wow, a real urban trail in the heart of a US city that we didn't have to wait until 2030 to get and in Indianapolis no less?!?! I never thought you had it in you... :-) Way to go Indy!

  • jh

    I use it for transportation daily....along with a lot of other people as well.

  • Rabi Abonour

    As an Indy native, I can say that the Trail is not perfect by any means. But I would argue that any project that garners positive attention for bike and pedestrian transportation is a step in the right direction.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Wow. Using the term "toy" is unbelievably ignorant - at best. Even if you are not happy with some of its design, using that term shows you have no idea when it comes to safe facilities for cycling.

  • Jonathan Brewer

    I live in Indy, and this trail isn't designed for higher-speed commuters and road cyclists, although I've paced on it before. It's primarily designed for the casual rider and pedestrian to reach multiple points in our compact (~1.5mi square) downtown.

    If, like me, you commute on a road bike with a 15-25mph avg speed, then the roads are better, and safer, downtown as traffic doesn't move much faster than that anyways.

  • RJ Sharpe

    Aaron, I beg to differ on point one. I know you have deep ties to Indy, but I use the Cultural Trail daily between downtown and IUPUI and have not seen one delayed red arrow.

  • RJ Sharpe

    I work in downtown Indy and have used parts of the Cultural Trail daily for over a year. I just want to add a couple of points for clarification. The CT is not a linear 8 mile trail, but a series of connected, shorter routes that link the historic neighborhoods and cultural amenities in and around downtown. Think of it as a series of spokes out of downtown, none of which extend more than 2 or 3 miles from Monument Circle. That makes it unique and different and very effective, in my opinion. I wouldn't call it a trail in the sense that the Monon or the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway, are trails. There is a grade level intersection every block along most of the Cultural Trail (canal excepted). Many crossings are of busy, high speed, one way streets. As a result, it is not nearly as pedestrian friendly as it could be. That said, it is a great start and a community asset. I hope the community embraces it and uses it as a catalyst for more change.